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John Martin


The great day of God's wrath

The fallen angels in hell

Sadak in search

John Martin (19 July 1789 – 17 February 1854) was an English Romantic painter, engraver and illustrator.


Martin was born in July 1789, in the week that the Bastille was stormed in Paris, at Haydon Bridge, near Hexham in Northumberland, the 4th son of Fenwick Martin, a one time fencing master. He was apprenticed by his father to a coachbuilder in Newcastle upon Tyne to learn heraldic painting, but owing to a dispute over wages the indentures were canceled, and he was placed instead under Bonifacio Musso, an Italian artist, father of the enamel painter Charles Muss. With his master, Martin removed from Newcastle to London in 1806, where he married at the age of nineteen, and supported himself by giving drawing lessons, and by painting in watercolours, and on china and glass - his only surviving painted plate is now in the royal collection in Copenhagen. His leisure was occupied in the study of perspective and architecture. His brothers were William, the eldest, an inventor; Richard, a soldier who fought in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo; and Jonathan, a preacher tormented by madness who almost burned down York Minster in 1829, for which he stood trial.

Martin began to supplement his income by painting in oils: one or two landscapes, but more usually grand biblical themes inspired by the Old Testament. He was heavily influenced by his childhood experiences. His landscapes have the ruggedness of the Northumberland crags, while vast apocalyptic canvasses, like The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah show his intimate familiarity with the forges and ironworks of the Tyne Valley – and the Old testament. His timing could not have been better. In the years of the Regency from 1812 onwards there was a fashion for such ‘sublime’ paintings, encouraged by the publications of travellers returning from the Grand Tour or the Middle East with exotic tales of places like Ur and Babylon, Pompeii and Alexandria.

Martin’s break came at the end of a season at the Royal Academy, where his first great biblical canvas Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion had been hung – and ignored. He brought it home, only to find there a visiting card from William Manning MP, a governor of the Bank of England. Manning wanted to buy it from him.

Such influential patronage propelled Martin’s career onto a major stage though he was never, to his disgust, elected to the Royal Academy. This promising career was interrupted though, by the death of his father, mother, grandmother and young son – all in a single year. Another distraction was William, who frequently asked him to draw up plans for his inventions, and whom he always indulged with help and money. But, heavily influenced by the works of Milton, he continued with his grand themes, despite a number of financial and artistic setbacks - one of his works was ruined while waiting to be hung at the Academy by a careless artist spilling a pot of dark varnish over it. In 1816 he finally achieved public acclaim with Joshua, an immense theme which struck a popular chord even though it broke many of the conventional rules of composition. In 1818, on the back of the sale of the Fall of Babylon for more than £1000, he finally rid himself of debt and bought a house in Marylebone - then, as now, a fashionable and desirable part of London, where he came into contact with a wide range of artists, writers, scientists and Whig nobility.

His triumph was Belshazzar’s Feast, of which he boasted beforehand, “it shall make more noise than any picture ever did before... only don’t tell anyone I said so.” Five thousand people paid to see it. It was later, in a superb historical irony, nearly ruined when the carriage in which it was being transported was struck by a train at a level crossing near Oswestry; in 1841, with John Martin himself on the footplate, Isambard Kingdom Brunel ran a train at 90 mph to disprove Stephenson’s theory that locomotives could not go faster than horses.

In private Martin was passionate, a devotee of chess - and, in common with his brothers, swordsmanship and javelin-throwing - and a radical who won a reputation for hissing at the National Anthem in public. Nevertheless, he was courted by royalty and presented with several gold medals, one of them from the Russian Tsar Nicholas, on whom a visit to Wallsend colliery on Tyneside had made an unforgettable impression: ‘My God,’ he had cried, ‘it is like the mouth of Hell.’ Martin became the official historical painter to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg – Queen Victoria’s ‘dearest Uncle’ - who would have been Queen Charlotte’s consort had she lived, and who later became the first King of Belgium, where he constructed Europe’s first major railway. Leopold was the godfather of Martin’s son Leopold, and endowed Martin with one of Belgium’s first knighthoods, the Order of Leopold. Martin frequently had early morning visits from another Saxe-Coburg, Prince Albert, who would engage him in banter from his horse – Martin standing in the doorway still in his dressing gown – at seven o'clock in the morning. Martin, and his highly intelligent wife Susan were warm and affectionate friends to many, but he was also a passionate defender of deism, evolution (before Darwin) and rationality.

Georges Cuvier, the great French naturalist, became an admirer of Martin’s, and he increasingly enjoyed the company of scientists, artists and writers – Dickens, Faraday and Turner among them. He began to experiment with mezzotint technology, and as a result was commissioned to produce 24 engravings for a new edition of Paradise Lost – perhaps the definitive illustrations of Milton’s masterpiece, of which copies now fetch many hundreds of pounds. Politically his sympathies were radical and among his friends were counted William Godwin, the ageing reformed revolutionist, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley; and John Hunt, co-founder of The Examiner.

At one time the Martins took under their wing a young woman called Jane Webb, who at twenty produced The Mummy a novel almost as influential as Frankenstein. The Mummy was a socially optimistic but satirical vision of a steam-driven world in the 22nd century, the progenitor of a hundred books and as many movies. Another friend was Charles Wheatstone, professor of physics at King’s College, London. Wheatstone experimented with telegraphy and invented the concertina and stereoscope; Martin was fascinated by his attempts to measure the speed of light. Accounts of Martin’s evening parties reveal an astonishing array of thinkers, eccentrics and social movers; one witness was a very young John Tenniel - later illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s work - who was heavily influenced by Martin and who was a close friend of his children. At various points Martin’s brothers were also among the guests – their eccentricities and conversation adding to the already exotic flavour of the fare.

Martin himself might have been even more famous if he had not for nearly a decade from about 1826 abandoned his painting career to become involved with older brother Jonathan’s trial for setting fire to York Minster, older brother William’s inventions - he frequently drew up the designs and had a fierce altercation with George Stephenson over them - and his own fascination with solving London’s water and sewage problems. His plans were visionary: they show a fine engineering brain coupled with the artistic vision that would have made London a city of European grandeur. They formed the basis for many later engineers’ designs – Joseph Bazalgette’s included - and were approved by Michael Faraday and Martin’s great artistic competitor, Turner. These plans, along with railway schemes, an idea for ‘laminating timber’ and draining islands, all survive. Major exhibitions of his works are still mounted. But even Martin could not escape the family genes – he developed a form of manic depression in later life, brought on by debt and perhaps exacerbated by the suicide of his nephew – Jonathan’s son Richard.

A great number of Martin’s works survive in collections: the Laing art gallery in Newcastle - which also holds his famous ‘black cabinet’ of projects in progress; the Tate, the Victoria and Albert museum, and elsewhere in Europe and the USA. The RIBA holds many of his exquisite engineering drawings. There are letters in private collections and many of his papers are kept at Queen Mary College in London. The art critic William Feaver wrote an acclaimed, and now expensively rare artistic biography of him in the 1970s. Other biographies include that of Mary Pendered whose chief source, Martin’s friend Sergeant Ralph Thomas, wrote a diary - now lost - of their relationship. A major source for his life is a series of reminiscences by his son Leopold, published in sixteen parts in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle in 1889. There are a number of surviving letters and reminiscences by, among others, B.R. Haydon, John Constable, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Rossettis, Benjamin Disraeli, Charlotte Brontë and John Ruskin – a persistent critic who, even so, admitted Martin's uniqueness of vision.

John Martin’s influence survived in perhaps curious places. One of his few followers was Thomas Cole, founder of American landscape painting. Others whose imaginations were fired by him included Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Brontës - who as children played with a model of him, the pre-Raphaelites - especially Rossetti, and several generations of movie-makers, from DW Griffiths, who borrowed his Babylon from Martin, to Cecil B de Mille and George Lucas. Writers like Rider Haggard, Jules Verne and HG Wells were influenced by his concept of the sublime. The French Romantic movement, in both art and literature, was inspired by him. Much Victorian railway architecture was copied from his motifs, including his friend Brunel’s Clifton suspension bridge. Martin’s engineering plans for London which included a circular connecting railway, though they failed to be built in his lifetime, all came to fruition later. This would have pleased him inordinately – he admitted he would rather have been an engineer than painter.[1]

John Martin died on the Isle of Man in 1854. He is buried in Kirk Braddon cemetery.
The Great Day of His Wrath, c. 1853.
The Seventh Plague of Egypt, engraving after John Martin
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852.


His first exhibited subject picture, Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (now in the St. Louis Art Museum), was hung in the Ante-room of the Royal Academy in 1812, and sold for fifty guineas. It was followed by the Expulsion (1813), Paradise (1813), Clytie (1814), and Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816). In 1821 appeared his Belshazzar's Feast, which excited much favorable and hostile comment, and was awarded a prize of £200 at the British Institution, where the Joshua had previously carried off a premium of £100. Then came the Destruction of Herculaneum (1822), the Creation (1824), the Eve of the Deluge (1841), and a series of other Biblical and imaginative subjects. The Plains of Heaven is thought to reflect his memories of the Allendale of his youth and his adulthood.

Martin's large paintings were inspired by "contemporary dioramas or panoramas, popular entertainments in which large painted cloths were displayed, and animated by the skilful use of artificial light. Martin has often been claimed as a forerunner of the epic cinema, and there is no doubt that the pioneer director D. W. Griffith was aware of his work."[2] In turn, the diorama makers borrowed Martin's work, to the point of plagiarism. A 2,000-square-foot (190 m2) version of Belshazzar's Feast was mounted at a facility called the British Diorama in 1833; Martin tried, but failed, to shut down the display with a court order. Another diorama of the same picture was staged in New York City in 1835. These dioramas were tremendous successes with their audiences, but wounded Martin's reputation in the serious art world.[3] The painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852 is currently at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.


In addition to being a painter, John Martin was a major mezzotint engraver and for significant periods of his life he earned more from his engravings than his paintings. In 1823, Martin was commissioned by Samuel Prowett, an American publisher, to illustrate John Milton's Paradise Lost, for which he was paid 2000 pounds. However, before the first 24 engravings were completed he was paid a further 1500 pounds for a second set of 24 engravings on smaller plates. Two of the more notable prints include Pandæmonium and Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, remarkable for the science fiction element visible in the depicted architecture. Prowett issued 4 separate editions of the engravings in monthly installments, the first appearing on 20 March 1825 and the last in 1827. Later, inspired by Prowett’s venture, between 1831 and 1835 Martin published his own illustrations to the Old Testament but the project was a serious drain on his resources and not very profitable. He sold his remaining stock to Charles Tilt who republished them in a folio album in 1838 and in a smaller format in 1839.


Martin enjoyed immense popularity and a print of Belshazzar's Feast hung on the parlour wall of the Brontë vicarage in Haworth, where Charlotte and Branwell copied Martin's works. Martin's fantasy architecture influenced the Glasstown and Angria of the Bronte juvenilia, where he himself appears as Edward de Lisle of Verdopolis. His profile was raised even further in February 1829 when his older brother, non-conformist Jonathan Martin deliberately set fire to York Minster. The fire caused extensive damage and the scene was likened by an onlooker to Martin's work, oblivious to the fact that it had more to do with him than it initially seemed. Jonathan Martin's defence at his trial was paid for with Martin's money. His older brother, known as "Mad Martin", was ultimately found guilty but was spared the hangman's noose on the grounds of insanity.

He was also occupied with schemes for the improvement of London, and published various pamphlets and plans dealing with the metropolitan water supply, sewerage, dock and railway systems. His 1834 plans for London's sewerage system anticipated by some 29 years the 1859 proposals of Joseph Bazalgette to create intercepting sewers complete with walkways along both banks of the River Thames.

During the last four years of his life Martin was engaged upon a triptych of very large biblical subjects: The Last Judgment, The Great Day of His Wrath, and The Plains of Heaven, of which the latter two were bequeathed to Tate Britain in 1974. Martin suffered an attack of paralysis while painting and died on the Isle of Man.

Like some other popular artists, Martin fell victim to changes in fashion and public taste. His "grandiose visions seemed theatrical and outmoded to the mid-Victorians, and Martin died both neglected and forgotten."[4] "Few artists have been subject to such posthumous extremes of critical fortune, for in the 1930s his vast paintings fetched only a pound or two, while today they are valued at many thousands."[3]

John Martin's star is again on the rise. There is a renewed interest in his work and its legacy. A major travelling exhibition, co-curated between the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle and Tate Britain, London opened at the Laing on March 5, 2011.[5][6] To complement the exhibition, a new illustrated book by Barbara C. Morden titled John Martin: Apocalypse Now! (Northumbria Press November 2010) explores key works (paintings and engravings) in the context of his life, times, influence and relevance for the 21st century.

Popular culture

His painting of The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium was used as the cover art of the NWOBHM band Angel Witch for their self titled debut album.

The Great Day of His Wrath is used on the cover of Lustmord's iconic album, "Heresy".

The Great Day of His Wrath can also be seen adorning a wall in the computer game Zork Nemesis.

Ray Harryhausen, pioneering designer, stop-motion animator and developer of the process Dynamation (see Jason and the Argonauts 1963 and the first Clash of the Titans 1981) acknowledges the influence of John Martin on his work.

Derek Riggs, graphic designer, famous as the creator of the iconic record sleeves of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden was and continues to be inspired by John Martin in his work.


Wife and children

With his wife Susan, Martin had five children: Alfred (who became an engineer), Isabella, Zenobia (who married the artist Peter Cunningham), Leopold (who became a clerk), and Jessie (who married egyptologist Joseph Bonomi). Leopold was the godson of the future King Leopold I of Belgium, who had met and befriended Martin when they shared lodgings on Marylebone High Street in about 1815. Leopold later wrote a series of reminiscences of his father, published in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle in 1889.[7] Leopold accompanied his father on many walks and visits, and his anecdotes include encounters with JMW Turner, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, William Godwin and Charles Wheatstone. Leopold married the sister of John Tenniel, later famous as the cartoonist of punch and illustrator of Alice's adventures in Wonderland.

Martin's brothers

Martin's eldest brother, William (1772–1851) was by turn a rope-maker, soldier, inventor, scientist, writer and lecturer, who attempted to develop a rival philosophy to "Newtonian" science, allowing for perpetual motion, and denying the law of gravity. Despite undoubted elements of "quackery and buffoonery", William had a great talent for inventing. In 1819 he produced a miner's safety lamp which was said to be better and more reliable than that of Sir Humphry Davy. The only recognition he achieved in this field was a silver medal from the Royal Society for the invention of the spring balance. The second eldest brother, Richard, was a quartermaster in the guards, serving throughout the Peninsular War, and was present at Waterloo. Jonathan, the third eldest brother, (1782–1838) achieved notoriety by setting fire to York Minster in February 1829. He was subsequently apprehended, tried and found not guilty on the grounds of insanity - he was confined to St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics in London, where he remained until his death.[8]


1. ^ Biographical sketch by Max Adams, author of 'The Prometheans: John Martin and the generation that stole the future' Quercus 2010
2. ^ Wood, p. 19.
3. ^ a b Lambourne, p. 160.
4. ^ Wood, p. 20.
5. ^ John Martin makes a dramatic come-back - the Guardian
6. ^ John Martin on Radio 4's Front Row
7. ^ see, for example, Adams 2010, 147
8. ^ Lee, Sidney (Ed). Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 36 (1893).


This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "John Martin". Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.

* Lee, Sidney (Ed.). Dictionary of national biography, Volume 36 (Smith, Elder & Co., 1893) pp. 282–4.
* Adams, Max. The Prometheans: John Martin and the generation that stole the future . London, Quercus, 2010. ISBN 9781849161732
* Baronnet, M. John Martin. Nancy, Lulu, 2010. ISBN 9781445279312
* Feaver, William. The Art of John Martin. Oxford University Press, 1975. ISBN 0198173342
* Hall, Marshall. The Artists of Northumbria. Bristol, Art Dictionaries, 2005. ISBN 0953260992
* Johnstone, Christopher. John Martin. London, Academy Editions, 1974. ISBN 0856701750
* Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London, Phaidon Press, 1999.
* Barbara C. Morden John Martin: Apocalypse Now!Northumbria Press, November, 2010. ISBN 9781904794998
* Wood, Christopher. Victorian Painting. Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1999. ISBN 0821223267

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